Samsung has unveiled a highly anticipated digital wristwatch at least weeks ahead of a similar product expected from rival Apple. The so-called smartwatch is what some technology analysts believe could become this year's must-have holiday gift.

Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Gear on Wednesday in Berlin ahead of the annual IFA consumer electronics show.

Samsung says the Gear can act as an extension to a smartphone by discreetly alerting users to incoming messages and calls on its display screen, which measures 1.63 inches diagonally.

Users can even make calls, secret agent-style without getting out their phone.

The Gear also sports a basic camera and works with popular social media and fitness apps such as Twitter and RunKeeper.

Samsung will start shipping the $299 Gear smartwatch in September, ahead of a similar product expected from Apple. I had a chance to play with a pre-production unit for about 10 minutes and briefly with the version that Samsung announced Wednesday in Berlin on the eve of the annual IFA consumer electronics show.

Like similar products already being sold, the Gear is not an independent device. For useful functionality, the Gear needs to be linked with a specific Samsung smartphone or tablet computer. The pairing is done wirelessly over a Bluetooth connection built-in to both sides.

The Gear's display is a touch screen measuring 1.63 inches diagonally. Its strap has an embedded camera. The Gear supports apps such as Facebook and lets the wearer answer incoming calls or check email without picking up the smartphone that's paired with it. The Gear is not the smartwatch disclosed in recent Samsung patent filings with a flexible display.

With smartphones and tablets now ubiquitous, the mobile phone industry is creating a new category of products to wow consumers. Many believe the next big step for consumer electronics is advanced computing technology in everyday objects such as wristwatches and glasses.

Apple is seeking an iWatch trademark. Meanwhile, the response to projects such as Pebble, a smartwatch that received more than $10 million in investment pledges through funding website Kickstarter, also attests to the public interest in this trend.

Samsung is trying to attract not only tech addicts who must have the latest gadget but also young, design-conscious consumers. The Gear's design flair and ease of use are its sweetest attributes, but it may not entirely please either group. Although powered by the Android operating system, like many phones and tablets, it will work only with Samsung devices — and only with newer models.

At about twice the price of the Sony SmartWatch and the Pebble, Gear boasts a camera, a speakerphone and plenty of apps — about six dozen, according to Samsung. Apps include Twitter and sports services such as RunKeeper, which tracks runs and other workouts. Moderate use of the device will require a daily battery top-up with yet another charger to keep track of.

The big disappointment for Samsung gadget owners is that Gear does not work with most of its phones and tablets. The Gear needs the Galaxy Note III, a smartphone with a giant 5.7-inch screen and a digital pen, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, a tablet computer. Both will go on sale later this month. At a later date, it will be compatible with the Galaxy S4, released earlier this year, and the Galaxy Note II, which came out late last year.

In some countries, mobile carriers will bundle the Gear with the Note III on a two-year contract. In other places, consumers will be able to buy the Gear without a phone contract.

Overall, the Gear gives us more ways to imagine what wearable computing gadgets might do for us in the future. Gear is smart but in a limited way, as it's essentially a slave to the smartphone it's paired to.

After my brief hands-on experience, I decided the first generation of the Gear was cool but not compelling enough to convince me to ditch my current device, an iPhone.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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